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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

Imagine there was another world beneath London.  It is dark and dank and full of talking animals and dangerous otherworlders.  Neil Gaiman  invents just such a place in Neverwhere, where unsuspecting nice guy, Richard Mayhew, helps a girl in distress and finds himself in this creepy, new world.

What I liked about Neverwhere:  the descriptive scenes and scenery, and the way the story twists and turns with many, many surprises.  Because, after all, in another world, ANYTHING can happen.

What I didn’t like about Neverwhere:  The plot just wasn’t crisp enough or exciting enough for me.  It felt more like a young adult novel with some gore thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I read it.  It was a fun read and I’ve always been curious to read Gaiman’s work.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1996
370 pages

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The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

The Sunday Philosophy Club

Most of us are familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s charming series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  I’ve read several and loved them all.  So, when my aunt handed me The Sunday Philosophy Club, she didn’t have to convince me to read it.

Set in Scotland, Isabel Dalhousie is a full-time editor and a part-time “gumshoe”, and in this, the first novel in the series, Isabel is witness to a tragic accident, when a man falls to his death, from a balcony, at a symphony concert.  But the wanna-be-detective, starts to asks questions, and pretty soon, she isn’t convinced it was an accident.

I’m not usually a fan of mysteries, and honestly, this one was just okay.  It lacked the warmth and humor of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, and the setting did not intrigue me in the way Mr. McCall Smith was able to use Botswana with it’s unique culture and folklore.  Turns out this series is not my cup of tea.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2004
247 pages

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Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies

Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel aims high with her follow-up to Wolf Hall, and this exciting novel of Thomas Cromwell’s England definitely reaches it’s mark.  Bring Up the Bodies begins after the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Mantel deftly  tells the story of that Queen’s downfall and her death through the eyes of the King’s trusted adviser.

In the last book, there were complaints of not being able to discern between the characters.  Too many Thomas’.  Well, I did not find that to hold true with this book.  Perhaps I am too familiar with the story and characters – but I don’t think so.  Bring Up the Bodies is brilliant in it’s detail and in it’s ability to draw you in and keep you from putting it down.  By the last half of the book, I was doubling the number of pages read in a day, because I couldn’t wait to find out how Mantel would relate the next part of the story.  Loved it!

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
410 pages

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Churchill by Paul Johnson

Churchill

He did not see himself as a reactionary longing for a past that was gone, but as the prophet of a dangerous future.  The world, he said, was “entering a period when the struggle for self-preservation is going to present itself with great intensiveness to thickly populated industrial countries.”

Five years ago, eminent historian Paul Johnson published this concise history of Winston Churchill, in order to answer the question “Did Churchill save England?”  Obviously Winston Churchill has a rich history and a definitive biography would require upwards of 1,000 pages.  But there is something to be said for a 200 page biography like this one, and the focus on Churchill’s acumen about world affairs makes for a great book.

First, Johnson not only hits the high points, but also adds his only personal experiences with The British Bulldog.  Second, we get a real feel for the man – his tenacity, his stubbornness and his ever present wit.  Lastly, sometimes a short biography such as this one serves as a taste test for delving into the longer, more exhaustive tome.  I have to say I’m hooked.  Winston Churchill was not only a great leader who seemed destined to lead in a time of world crisis, but an interesting personality as well.  I will definitely be reading that larger biography (which Johnson recommends a few in the Further Reading section of the book).

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2009
181 pages

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Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

Burning Bright

Set in London in 1792, Burning Bright, is the story of a Dorsetshire family who arrives in the great city with the hope of a better life, and to turn away from the tragedy they left behind.  But for the children, Jem and Maisie, London proves to be a place where they must grow up quickly and be wary of strangers.  They do find a friend in neighbor (and real-life personage), William Blake, who finds himself persecuted for printing his political opinions.

I’ve read 6 books by Tracy Chevalier, and this is the only one that fell short.  I gather she really wanted to write about William Blake, but instead made him an incidental character.  Her main characters, didn’t have enough of a story going to really captivate the reader, and that’s too bad, because Chevalier’s background of Georgian London was descriptive and exciting.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2007
308 pages

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The House At Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

The House at Tyneford

All month I’m resolved to read nothing but books set in England, and The House at Tyneford has proved to be an excellent selection!  Imagine growing up next to a ghost village, where a large manor house stands abandoned and the people that inhabited the surrounding countryside have long since vanished.  That is exactly the story behind author Natasha Solomons, and her decision to research and write a novel with that village as the backdrop.

The story begins in 1938, when 19 year old Elise Landau must leave Austria, as the Nazi-governed state becomes increasingly dangerous for the Jews that reside there.  Though born to the finer things in life, she accepts a post as servant in a great English house – Tyneford.  Through Elise’s story, we experience the vast changes Britain faces as Europe becomes embroiled in war, and the consequences that touch lives for years to come.

Solomons does a marvelous job presenting her research in an informative and captivating way, with the charm of the English countryside and the tension of World War II.  Top that off with a romance and there’s one fine novel here.  Loved it!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2011
359 pages

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